Batman: The Killing Joke Review – Does it live up to the hype?
Beware, all ye who enter the Joker’s Funhouse of Spoilers!
Before we start the review, let’s have a bit of backstory: The Killing Joke is a graphic novel written by Alan Moore, and illustrated by Brian Bollard that was first released in 1988. It has since gone on to become, perhaps, the most well known of all Joker related material in DC’s rich history as it focuses on the man before The Joker, and the origin of this legendary villain. This is the story of a man who simply had one bad day. It’s also rather infamous for the somewhat graphic depiction of an event that would see an integral member of the Bat Family changed forever – the shooting and paralysis of Barbara Gordon.
For years now fans have been waiting impatiently for an animated adaption of The Killing Joke, including both Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy; myself included. As the graphic novel is considered the definitive Joker story, it would be stupid not to do a movie, wouldn’t it? Well, our prayers were eventually answered in 2015 during San Diego Comic-Con. Bruce Timm publicly announced to the audience that an animated film was indeed in development. Fans went wild. Petitions sprung up everywhere to demand that both Conroy and Hamill be hired to reprise their roles as Batman and The Joker respectively, and once again, we got our wish. Let’s be honest here, Conroy and Hamill are Batman and The Joker. When asked to put a voice to these characters, most people will likely try to imitate those provided by these two wonderful actors; they have, after all been the characters’ voices for so many years now in some of the best loved media, including the Arkham game trilogy.
When you love the characters and this particular story as much as many of the fans do, it’s incredibly difficult to contain the amount of hype you feel when you first hear that an adaption is coming (trust me, I know this from experience), but there is of course the risk that you over-hype yourself which can leave you feeling disappointed in the final product. In this article I will be providing my honest opinions regarding the newly released animated adaption of The Killing Joke, a movie I have waited so long to see. Let’s begin.
As with any adaption, you must leave yourself open to the possibility of changes being made to the storyline, and The Killing Joke is no exception. The story includes a brand new prologue set up to introduce us to the character of Barbara Gordon / Batgirl, a character that only really features in the main story for a short, but memorable scene or two. It’s fairly obvious why this inclusion was made – it’s to familiarise the audience with the character so that her eventual shooting will have a much greater impact on us. When I first heard that we were getting a Batgirl based prologue, I was all for it. Batgirl is a great character, and as I said, in a story such as this, it makes sense to give her a backstory and a bit of characterisation for those viewers that are relatively unfamiliar with who she is. I was hoping that we’d get thirty minutes or so of her kicking arse, displaying her strength both physical and mental. but instead we get a story based around a number of men in her life (mainly a criminal, and her mentor) something which I don’t feel was needed in the slightest. The kicker really comes towards the end of the prologue, a moment that itself has become intensely controversial throughout the fandom since the film was first shown at Comic-Con – During an argument that gets rather heated, Batman and Batgirl have sex. Yep, after a furious Batgirl attacks Batman, she ends up on top of him and they have sex. Right, two issues that I have with this are: 1: Batgirl views Batman as both a mentor and a kind of father-figure, not as a potential love interest, and 2: Batman is completely in control of his emotions and his will, so it seems massively out of place that he would just lay back and go there. Some people have suggested that it was required to show a deeper connection between the two characters for when The Joker shoots her later on, but no. It just kind of comes out of nowhere. Yes, there are moments throughout the prologue that suggest she has feelings for Bruce, but there is nothing from Batman’s perspective to suggest that this ever really crossed his mind. It was just bad. Lazy and bad. I don’t really have much else to say about the prologue.
Anyway, enough of that. Now I’m going to move on to the main reason we’re all here – The Killing Joke. For the most part, I love this movie. I could happily watch it again (skipping the prologue of course), but I can’t help but feel underwhelmed. It really embraces the darker side of The Joker, absolutely it does, and throughout the movie you get such a sense of foreboding and dread, and as you would expect, both Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill give amazing performances as their characters, but unfortunately, there are a number of things that let the movie down, which ultimately leads me to feel a little let down. For example: The animation is janky, the art is a little too basic for my liking (with a few noticeable exceptions which I will get onto shortly), both of which I found to be very distracting, which can take your focus away from what is going on in the story.
As for the movie itself (animation aside), The Killing Joke itself is absolutely on point. After you have seen it, go back and read the graphic novel. You’ll see that the majority of the film has been ripped straight from the book, and I love that, the novel is great, and an almost direct adaption suits me fine. The opening few minutes of the movie is one of the first new scenes that you will notice. Harvey Bullock is awaiting Batman’s arrival at a small lock-up to overlook a crime-scene of a fairly grotesque display. After no time at all, Batman deduces exactly what happened and who the victims were (he’s Batman, duh). Though for us non-Batmen, just one look at the victims provides us with more than enough information about the perpetrator. Take a look at the image below and have a guess.
Ignoring my gripes with the animation, the appearance of these corpses is one of the things I love about the art. They’re fabulously disturbing, and creepy as fuck, which really adds to the sense of foreboding we viewers feel; because as we all know by now, Joker stories get dark. From here on out, the movie remains relatively faithful to the novel with Batman entering the infamous Arkham Asylum along with Jim Gordon. Our anticipation rises as we know exactly who we are about to see. The Joker commands our attention in every scene he appears in, which is a good thing considering that this movie is based around him; he is just so incredibly unpredictable that you feel like you’ll miss something if you take your eyes off him even for a split second. Throughout the entire movie The Joker is great; Mark Hamill really does do a stellar job once again, as The Clown Prince of Crime. I bet he was so excited when it was time to officially give life to one of The Joker’s most memorable speeches, the one thing that fans have wanted to hear from Mark Hamill throughout his long career as the character; and boy what a monologue it was. Fans will not be left disheartened by this rendition of The Joker’s “One Bad Day” speech at all, not in the slightest. Even during his flashback scenes, Mark Hamill provides a great performance as the man who will one day become the scourge of Batman.
The flashbacks offer us a glimpse of just who The Joker was before that fateful night, the night that would change the course of two people’s lives forever. Despite being down on his luck, the unnamed man appears to be suffering badly with depression – he feels like he is failing his wife, his unborn child. He cannot provide for them and it is tearing him apart. You truly get a sense of how pathetic The Joker’s life was before he gave in to madness. A failed comedian with a wife to support and a child on the way. He is trying to be a good man, he is trying to create a nice life for those he loves; he just… can’t. As with many desperate men before him, he turns to a life of crime, agreeing to assist two criminals with their break-in at ACE Chemicals. This moment provides we fans of The Joker with a chill, the moment is almost upon us. As the man dons that iconic Red Hood helmet, you know exactly what is about to happen. The birth of The Joker is an remarkable scene to behold; as the blood runs down his eyes, his skin a ghostly white, and his hair a deep green, the failed comedian has now been reborn as one of the most dangerous men in creation, signalled by the most heartbreaking laugh you will ever hear from The Joker.
I couldn’t possibly talk about The Killing Joke without discussing the shooting of Barbara Gordon. After a moment of laughing and joking with her father, the pair’s lives take a dark turn for the worst. Barbara answers a knock at the door only to discover the clown is standing before her, gun pointed, ready to shoot. As she is on the floor, surrounded by broken glass and in a pool of her own blood, The Joker advances towards her while making a number of off-hand jokes about the dreadful situation. You can really see why some people will feel disturbed by this scene, it’s quite unsettling, especially considering that the only reason The Joker has done this terrible thing is to simply “prove a point”. Take another look at the main image I have used for this article. Can you imagine having him standing over you with that smile on his face as you lay there broken and defenceless? It’s horrifying.
The final scene of this movie is surprisingly tragic to me. The way The Joker turns down Batman’s offer for rehabilitation makes me feel kind of sad. Particularly after witnessing the flashbacks, every fibre of your being just wants The Joker to accept, to try and return to a life of normality. He confesses that he believes it is far too late for him to find redemption, to fix his broken psyche. The Joker here seems astonishingly normal, not unhinged in the slightest. It’s so rare to see him display an emotion that isn’t anger or in any way psychotically jovial. As the movie ends, as he treats Batman to one last joke (a joke that, amazingly, cracks a smile on The Dark Knight’s face), we are left with an enigmatic close to The Killing Joke story; and just like the graphic novel, the movie leaves the ending open to interpretation. Only one man is left audibly laughing at the split second this movie ends – Batman. Has he killed The Joker? Does his maniacal laughter signify that he has finally snapped? Has The Joker won? We can only figure that one out for ourselves. There are many arguments discussing the meaning behind what occurred, but let’s not get into those here. We’ll save all that for another day.
Now that the movie itself is out of the way, I would like to share my thoughts on the animation, which, as I have already mentioned, was not good, not in my opinion anyway. It seemed a little lazy, to be honest. I am profoundly sad to say that I am left so frustrated by what we were given. Let me give an example – in his introduction, when The Joker shakes the carnival owner’s hand, he is wearing only his glove, yet when we cut back to The Joker taking his hand away from the owner, he suddenly has a strap attached (used to inject Joker Toxin into the poor guy). A stupid error! Or perhaps not an error at all, merely a lazy way to hide what is about to occur? Either way boo! As you can probably guess, I don’t really have a lot of positive things to say about the art in general; I mean, this is the one adaption that fans have been waiting for for years now, you would’ve thought that all the stops would have been pulled out to get every aspect bang on point, especially something as important as the art / animation style, but nope, we are left with something that could have been so much better.
But hey now, let’s not focus entirely on the negatives – there are, after all, a good few positives to the art that I loved. Firstly, I think the flashback scenes look wonderful. The art style used for them is great and fits quite well. It’s still a little janky, sure, but it manages to look good. I also like that they kept the sepia overtones to the colouring as well. Scroll back up and look again at that image depicting the birth of The Joker. Can you see how amazing it looks? Because it looks bloody outstanding! So yeah, overall the art and animation are ‘meh’, but there are a good handful of redeeming features to both aspects.
I’m going to start wrapping up now, dear readers. Taking everything into account – the art / animation, story, prologue, etc… I think that The Killing Joke could have been so much better. I loved the movie itself, but the prologue and the art really dragged the overall quality of the film down. On subsequent viewings (during which I skipped the prologue), I liked it a lot better than I did during my first watch, but I’m still having a bit of trouble getting past those little nagging issues I have with the movie. It’s so frustrating because this movie had so much potential to be one of the most memorable inclusions in the DC animated universe, but here we are. The execution just was not carried out too well. Unlike it’s graphic novel counterpart, I don’t believe that this movie will be remembered as a timeless classic, which saddens me. I’d happy welcome a new cut of the film which provides a fresh Batgirl prologue and an alternative art style.
Anyway, that’s me done for the day, my friends. Despite my misgivings on the film in general, I do think that you should give it a watch. We are, after all, a species with many differing tastes. I’m sure some of my colleagues here at The Nerd Recites will love this film, while others hated it, whereas I am somewhere in the middle. No matter where you stand on the quality of The Killing Joke, let me know your thoughts in the comments below. I love the character of The Joker, and am always happy to discuss his storylines.
The Killing Joke is available right now as a digital download priced £7.99.
Image credits: DC, Rocksteady.